Objectivity on zoning questioned


July 03, 2005|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

THE ACRIMONIOUS battle over the Howard County Council's comprehensive rezoning decisions has also given voice to political questions about the objectivity of the members.

Can County Council members who vote on comprehensive rezoning issues and accept political contributions from developers also decide Zoning Board cases fairly when they change hats and become the Zoning Board?

They say they can -- and do. But Howard Weinstein, a critic of plans to rezone 27 acres for an office park at Routes 100 and 103, is doubtful.

"When legislators also make regulatory decisions affecting developers who give them campaign contributions, that's like having congressmen taking drug company contributions and also regulating those companies at the Food and Drug Administration. It's institutionalized conflict of interest," Weinstein said in a letter to a newspaper.

James Browning, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, agreed that having elected council members making zoning decision while depending on developers for campaign money is "inherently a conflict of interest." In a small county such as Howard, where election campaigns require less money, a big contribution from a developer can stand out even more.

It is a particularly tricky issue this year because Zoning Board members likely will have to vote on at least eight individual rezoning requests they have voted on once as council members -- including the office park. The council's "Comp Lite" decisions were petitioned to referendum in next year's election.

Council members say the rules are different for the Zoning Board, which can only change zoning if applicants prove an error or a change in the neighborhood. By law, Zoning Board members may not discuss zoning cases, which is one reason voters a decade ago moved the comprehensive process from the board to the council.

Council members say they are fair and objective -- adding that they are directly accountable to the voters, and likely are more influenced by community members who elected them than by developers who make contributions that are publicly disclosed.

"I believe I was elected because of my positions on growth and development. I ran for the County Council so I could sit on the Zoning Board," said Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican who alone voted against the council bill.

"An appointed person can't be held accountable to the citizens," said council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat. The council has created a hearing examiner and zoning counsel position in the past few years to help communities, Guzzone said.

"The bottom line is decisions have to be made, and as much as you try to create a solution to accommodate everybody's interests, somebody's going to be upset," he said.

Councilman Charles C. Feaga, a west county Republican, made another point, with which Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat, said he agrees.

"Everyone appoints people who think the same way. It's always political," Feaga said. Contributions from developers "are very minor," he said, and council members get money from citizens as well as from developers.

If the county changes the once-a-decade comprehensive zoning process into a more frequent and more local form of periodic rezoning, Guzzone suggested, people might be more satisfied with the process.

John Taylor, a western county slow-growth advocate who helped petition 1994's comprehensive rezoning to referendum, said he favors elected officials doing rezoning.

"To me, an appointed zoning board is the worst of all worlds," he said. "Appointees are likely to be political insiders."

His solution -- two-year County Council terms for twice the accountability.

O'Malley to Howard

Howard County's Young Democrats will host a well-known visitor next week -- undeclared gubernatorial candidate and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley.

But the visit may represent more locally than just another in a long line of campaign stops, according to the group's leader, Ethan W. Moore, 23, who is also county coordinator for U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin's Senate campaign.

The mayor is coming to Howard Community College for an evening event July 14, but the visit -- which Moore said is not an endorsement by the Young Democrats -- also has another purpose, Moore said.

"One of my greatest objectives here is really to start bringing the Democratic organizations in Howard County together. So many groups have similar goals," said Moore, an aide to Montgomery County Del. Joan F. Stern, a Democrat. Moore, a New England native, said he moved to Howard County in November from Silver Spring.

Having O'Malley, and later his political rival, fellow Democrat and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, come to Howard County is one way to attract Democrats of every stripe, he said.

The event is scheduled from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. for people to come and talk, Moore said,. O'Malley is expected about 7 p.m.

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